The fossil, the study says, predates the known timeline of animal evolution on Earth by 350 million years
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Fossils found in rugged mountainous terrain in Canada’s Northwest Territories may give a glimpse at the humble dawn of animal life on Earth — sea sponges that inhabited primordial reefs built by bacteria roughly 890 million years ago.
A Canadian researcher said on Wednesday the fossils, dating to a time called the Neoproterozoic Period, appear to show distinctive microstructures from the body of a sea sponge built similarly to a species living today called the Mediterranean bath sponge, or Spongia officinalis.
If this interpretation is correct, these would be the oldest fossils of animal life by roughly 300 million years.
“The earliest animals to emerge evolutionarily were probably sponge-like. This is not surprising given that sponges are the most basic type of animal both today and in the fossil record,” said geologist Elizabeth Turner of Laurentian University in Canada, who conducted the study published in the journal Nature.
The Earth formed more than 4.5 billion years ago. The first life forms were bacteria-like single-celled marine organisms that arose hundreds of millions of years later. Complex life evolved relatively late in Earth’s history.
The first appearance of rudimentary animal life has been a much-debated topic in terms of its timing and form. An enigmatic ribbed, pancake-shaped organism called Dickinsonia known from fossils dating to roughly 575 million years ago has been considered a candidate as the earliest-known animal.
The earliest animals to emerge evolutionarily were probably sponge-like
Turner said she believes animals evolved much earlier than the present fossil record indicates.
“The existence of a protracted back-history is not surprising, but the sheer duration of it — a few hundred million years — may be a little unexpected for some researchers,” Turner said.
When people think of animals, a sponge may not immediately come to mind. But sponges — aquatic invertebrates that live fixed to the sea floor and possess soft, porous bodies with internal skeletons — are among the most successful animal groups.
“They lack a nervous, digestive and circulatory system. They have an amazing water-pumping machine, produced by specialized cells, that they use to move seawater through their bodies to filter-feed,” Turner said.
Some sponges have skeletons made of microscopic rods of quartz or calcite. Others have skeletons made of a tough protein called spongin that forms a complex three-dimensional meshwork supporting the animal’s soft tissue. The Canadian fossils represent this latter kind, called a horny sponge.
“It is the relict structure of the 3-D meshwork spongin skeleton that is preserved and that is so distinctive,” Turner said.
This structure, visible under the microscope, consists of tiny tubes that branch and rejoin to form the meshwork. The body size for the sponge would have been roughly four-tenths of an inch (1 cm). Turner said the sponges appear to have lived in cavities just below the reef surface and in surface depressions.
If these fossils genuinely show a type of sponge, their age would indicate that Earth’s first animals evolved before a pair of landmark events usually seen as predating animal life.
One of these was the second of two episodes in the planet’s history when the amount of atmospheric oxygen greatly increased, sometime between about 830 and 540 million years ago. The other was a tremendously cold time when Earth may have been encased in ice or at least partially frozen over, sometime between about 720 and 635 million years ago.
The fossils predate by about 350 million years what had been the oldest-known sponge fossils. Turner noted that genetic research indicates that sponges first appeared at approximately the time to which these fossils date.
Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and leading orbital travel agent, was feeling a bit slighted by the world’s most powerful man after President Joe Biden failed to acknowledge the company’s landmark Inspiration4 mission that sent four civilians on a three-day trip in orbit of our planet.
The flight was bankrolled by billionaire Jared Isaacman, who commanded the mission aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, alongside geologist Sian Proctor, data engineer Chris Sembroski and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital employee Hayley Arceneaux. The quartet splashed down safely off the coast of Florida on Saturday.
The mission served as a fundraiser for St. Jude, with over $60 million raised from the public so far. Isaacman also pledged $100 million and Musk added $50 million.
When a Twitter user asked why the president hadn’t acknowledged Inspiration4, Musk hopped into the replies.
“He’s still sleeping,” the CEO wrote, in an apparent reference to Donald Trump’s favorite nickname for his former adversary, “sleepy” Joe Biden.
It seems fair to point out, as a number of other Twitter users have, that the president may have a few other things on his plate at the moment, like continuing to manage the response to a global pandemic, climate crisis and various national security threats.
For what it’s worth, NASA administrator Bill Nelson, a Biden appointee, did offer his congratulations to the crew multiple times.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Inspiration4 is the latest in a string of pioneering space tourism missions this year. Richard Branson flew to the edge of space on the first fully crewed flight of his Virgin Galactic spaceplane in July. Nine days later, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos cruised a bit higher with three other passengers on his New Shepard spacecraft.
Unlike those flights, which lasted under 15 minutes each, the Inspiration4 mission was a much more complex venture that saw the four passengers performing scientific research during the multiple day flight as they orbited Earth over 40 times.
As it moves towards returning to the Moon ideally sometime in 2024, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is creating two new mission directorates. With the move, the agency is separating its existing Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate. NASA said it’s making the change in response to the increasing number of missions it’s conducting in low-Earth orbit, in addition to the plans it has for exploring deep space in the future.
It also announced who’s leading those units. Jim Free, a NASA veteran who has been with the space agency on and off since 1990, is the new associate administrator of ESDMD, while Kathy Lueders is taking on the equivalent position at the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Before becoming the first-ever woman to oversee human spaceflight at NASA, Lueders managed the Commercial Crew Program. As for what the two units will do, ESDMD will oversee the development of programs critical to Project Artemis and eventually manned spaceflight to Mars. Meanwhile, its counterpart will focus on launch operations, including those involving the International Space Station, with an eye towards Moon missions later.
According to NASA, the reorganization is ultimately about looking forward to the next 20 years. The new structure will allow one unit to focus on human spaceflight while the other builds future space systems. In that way, the agency says there will be a constant cycle of development and operations to help it move forward with its space exploration goals.
“This reorganization positions NASA and the United States for success as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, all while supporting the continued commercialization of space and research on the International Space Station,” Nelson said. “This also will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space for decades to come.”
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